Of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Marwan Barghouti is probably the most important. He’s the most charismatic leader the Palestinians have and could have the weight to unite the feuding Fatah and Hamas factions. He’s serving five life sentences for masterminding a series of attacks in Israel.
When he was arrested in April 2002, Ariel Sharon’s government viewed him as a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group which has carried out suicide attacks against Israel. Barghouti always denied the connection but often hailed their attacks on Israeli military targets. In May 2001, Israel bombed the West Bank. At that time, Barghouti was the head of Fatah in the region and known as the man who ruled the streets. He was quick to denounce the use of war planes against the Occupied Territories. “This is the first time we have attacks by the Israeli aircraft,” said Baraghouti. “The aircraft were F-16s. This is a very dangerous escalation of the situation. This will lead to more Palestinian reactions.” Neither the inside of an Israeli prison nor intifadas are new to Barghouti. He was an organiser in the first intifada from 1987 to 1992. Before being jailed, he led West Bank protest marches to Israeli checkpoints and widely condemned Israeli policies. Barghouti says: “They (Israel) want to keep the settlements, to keep the occupation on the ground in Jerusalem. They want to cancel the right of return. So who can sign this kind of agreement from the Palestinian side? Nobody can.” Even from his jail cell, Barghouti continues to play an important political role calling for Fatah and Hamas to end their fierce rivalry. Many think Barghouti will run for the Palestinian presidency, whether or not he is released from jail in a prisoner swap to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.